Nov 11 2013 5:00pm

All Hail The CW, Television Overlord of SFF

Something magical is going on at The CW. Over the last few years, they’ve quietly become the one of the best channels for genre television, and, more specifically, SFF. In some ways, it’s not entirely surprising. When the scrappy little channel was birthed from the flames in the wake of the 2006 collapse-slash-merging of UPN (half cheesy teen melodramas and half network version of BET) and The WB (half cheesy teen melodramas and half Joss Whedon), few people gave The CW any thought. Home to Gossip Girl, America’s Next Top Model, and One Tree Hill, the channel became a laughingstock to the network powerhouses lower down the dial. Everyone joked that the only people watching The CW were hormonal teenage girls.

The CW dabbled in genre fare, offering up Veronica Mars (which it canceled a year after the merger), Smallville (which, by that point, was largely a (boring) young adult melodrama), and Supernatural (which has never managed to secure the larger audience it deserves). But speculative fiction was only a drop in their programming bucket and never seemed to be much of an interest to the Powers That Be.

In the last few years, the tide has turned. Today, the Big Four networks are tentpoled by a few long-in-the-tooth reality competition shows and struggling in everything else. ABC, NBC, and FOX are barely holding on, and only CBS is thriving—it rules the olds with run-of-the-mill procedurals and the golden ticket 18-49 target demo with overhyped middling sitcoms.

Yet all the while The CW quietly gains more and more traction in the ratings by focusing its aim on a very specific kind of show. That being said, what constitutes great ratings for The CW is peanuts to everyone else: October 15 brought the channel’s highest ratings in 4 years at 2.59 million for The Originals and Supernatural, while CBS scored 10.7m on their Thursday night lineup; neither are even in the same galaxy as The Walking Dead with its 20.2m.

Out of the 10 dramas the channel currently airs, 8 are speculative fiction (9 if you count The Carrie Diaries as historical). And good spec-fic to boot. As much as I hate to say it, part of The CW’s success is spillover from the popularity of Twilight and other kids/YA SFF. If I have to thank Stephanie Meyer for the privilege of watching Daniel Gillies brood, so be it.

Another, bigger part of the show’s genre success lies with its new network president, Mark Pedowitz. He took over in 2011 and one of the first things on his docket was to shift the target demographic from women 18-34 to adults 18-34. “Adults” is a politically correct way of saying “we need more dude-based eyeballs.” That’s the big difference between a channel that airs a Melrose Place remake and one that airs Arrow. Outmoded sexist stereotypes notwithstanding, it also means the difference between bigger budgets, bigger risks, and more genre diversity in television. (It also means more white cis-het male leads, which makes me sad for actual diversity.) The CW is glad that a lot of women watch Arrow, but they’re especially glad that women and men watch it. I look at it like The CW has finally given up trying to get women to like pretty pink princesses and is willing to let us have some adventure for once. And if that adventure dresses up in a superhero costume or slays demons or can teleport, all the better.

Things look just as enticing on the development front. Coming down the spec-fic pike we’ve got a show about a midwestern starlet who gets tangled up in the 1930s LA mob scene (Players), a Chicago-set Supernatural spin-off, and a possible The Flash remake if the backdoor pilot via Arrow comes to fruition. There’s also that recently announced biopunk genderbent adaptation of The Avenger. They’ve been trying for years to get a decent superhero collection going, what with their failed attempts at rebooting Wonder Woman, Raven, and Deadman, but so far only Arrow has made it onto the small screen.

Now, I know I keep using the terms “spec-fic” and “SFF” when it’s clear I’m really only talking about fantasy, comics, and historical dramas. As sci-fi fans are all too aware, the science part of SFF has taken a real hit on the television landscape in recent years. Everything science-y has been supplanted by fantasy, and no, Sharknado doesn’t count. Almost Human hasn’t aired yet, which means that as of right now, the only “true” science fiction show on network television is The CW’s The Tomorrow People. Luckily, it’s actually a pretty decent show, one that doesn’t play too heavy a hand on the teen drama and utilizes it’s limited SFX budget very well. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for The 100 and Star-Crossed in the midseason premieres.

A CW show is exciting, melodramatic, hyperbolic, and frenetic. There is no heady philosophizing. Family-friendly sitcoms are left to other stations, procedurals exist only inasmuch as they overlap with the Monster of the Week format, and anguished dramas about the tragedy of human existence are done with about as much subtlety as a sledgehammer to the face. But just because they aren’t cut from the same fabric as Breaking Bad doesn’t make them crap (except Beauty and the Beast, that show sucks). When The CW does SFF it goes for broke. The shows tend to be solid B’s—not stellar but enjoyable. The showrunners know their craft, their audience, and how to play to their actors’ strengths and weaknesses, and the studio gives them each enough leeway and support for all kinds of fun shenanigans.

If you’re a genre geek, The CW has you covered on virtually all fronts. Vampires, werewolves, wendigos, demons, angels, shapeshifters, time travel, genetically modified superhumans, caped crusaders, super spies, period dramas, Stephen Amell doing salmon ladder pull-ups, and Jensen Ackles in tight jeans all are present and accounted for. There are other SFF options elsewhere, of course, but few are as gutsy and edgy as those on The CW (excepting Teen Wolf *le sigh*). Few also commit to their premise as much (also excepting Sleepy Hollow). Other shows back away from absurdity for fear of alienating their older viewers (looking at you, Once Upon a Time) or insist on being treated as a highbrow drama (*cough* The Walking Dead *cough*). No one will ever accuse The Vampire Diaries off being too serious, and that’s a pretty great thing in my book.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
Counting historical fiction as a subset of speculative fiction is new to me, but I assume that covers Reign. But how are you counting Nikita as a genre show? I thought it was a spy-thriller sort of thing.

As for The Tomorrow People, I don't find it particularly good. I'm sticking with it for now, but only barely. And while I watch Beauty and the Beast mainly for its impressive leading ladies, I've been on the verge of giving up on it several times now. It keeps doing bad episodes that make me think "Okay, if this keeps up I'm gone," and then turns around next week and does something impressive enough to make me think "Well, maybe it's worth sticking around after all."

As for Supernatural, I respect that it's a well-done show, but I just find the leads totally uninteresting. And the vampire things hold no interest for me at all. So the only CW show I'm really enjoying right now is Arrow. Although that's kinda enough, because it's one of the best genre shows around.
Jeff R.
2. Jeff R.
If The Tomorrow People qualifies as science fiction, then I don't see any possible way that Revolution doesn't.
Christopher Bennett
3. ChristopherLBennett
@2: And let's not forget Person of Interest. However much CBS may try to pass it off as a procedural or a crime drama, at its core it's really a hard-SF show about the emergence of artificial intelligence and the rise of the surveillance state.
Jeff R.
4. Nicholas Winter
I think Person of Interest is the best sf show on television today. The last show that was as good from a purely sf basis as this was Max Headroom which was a long time ago.

Space Opera shows such as Babylon 5 and DS9 fall into a separate category.
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
@ChristopherLBennett: I've always seen Historical Fic subbed under spec-fic...And Nikita is spec fic as well specifically because it's genre. The thriller/spy thing? Genre.

@Jeff R, Christopher, Nicholas Winter: I didn't lump in Person of Interest or Revolution for 2 reasons: 1) from what I saw (as in their first 3 eps or so of the first season), they did scream genre but not SF; 2) I've never seen either described as SF, unlike The Tomorrow People. What Christopher says about Person of Interest is the opposite of what I think of Revolution. It pretends it's vaguely in the direction of SF, but it's really just a (boring) family drama. Not that Tomorrow is prime SF real estate. There's a lot of teenage angst in there that will vary your mileage. But I think it'll grow as it ages.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
@5: But "spec" is short for "speculative," i.e. fiction based on things that don't exist in real life. Sure, spy thrillers are a genre, but so are murder mysteries or medical dramas or sitcoms or, for that matter, absolutely everything else. We tend to use "genre" as a shorthand for the speculative genres, but literally it just means "kind" or "sort."

As for Person of Interest, it kept its SF elements close to the vest to start out, as you'd expect from a CBS show, but by this point it's become unambiguous that the Machine Mr. Finch built is a sentient being that's growing in power and independence. Essentially it's a show about the burgeoning Singularity, disguised as a crime procedural.

As for Revolution, I've never watched it, but it's definitely SF because it's about a hypothetical post-apocalyptic near future where all electrical devices have failed, and that apocalypse was eventually explained as the result of nanotechnology.
Jeff R.
7. frekklefayce
I won't comment on the difference between SF/F/spec fic/etc because the lines are all very blurry and I don't really think it matters in the grand scheme of things. But about Reign, there is a small supernatural element that I think elevates it above basic historical fiction. Also, the costumes are completely, riduculously inaccurate, so I'm assuming that the story is set in some kind of alternate universe.
Alex Brown
8. AlexBrown
@Christopher: I guess by "true" what I really mean is a show that is intentionally SF, with everything else incidental. Tomorrow is unabashedly SF, and the teen stuff is secondary to showing off their cool new superhuman powers. It's about the ramifications those powers have on the greater society. It's in the same general territory as Star Trek in terms of using SF to comment on modern society, even if it doesn't do it even a tenth as well. The reviews I've read of PoI and Revolution hae put their SF elements solidly in the background. They utilize SF trappings, but are really about something else. I'd argue it's why The Walking Dead is so popular. It utilizes the trappings of Horror without actually being about zombies. You'd be surprised how many people I encounter who don't realize The Time Traveler's Wife is actually SF, and it's resounding popularity is partly because of that disconnect.

So I'll concede that there are other SF shows on network television, but I still maintain that (at least until Almost Human finally debuts) it's only one that is fully SF.

@frekklefayce: Ha! Yes. The costumes are frakking insane.
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
@8: I don't know about Revolution, but those reviews of Person of Interest are wrong. Sure, the SF content is generally kept to an undercurrent, but that's just a sneaky way of getting the most intriguing hard-SF show on television onto CBS, the most SF-hostile network in America. It may not always come to the forefront, but to the careful watcher it's a crucial and overarching thread of the series, making PoI a far deeper and "truer" science fiction show -- in terms of its exploration of the consequences and ethical ramifications of technological innovation and social progress -- than anything else on the airwaves today. It's not a procedural using SF trappings, it's a hard SF show using procedural trappings.
Anthony Pero
10. anthonypero
All good science fiction is about something else. Asimov wrote about the human condition, disguised as science fiction. Star Wars was about themes as universal and old as humanly possible. The Vorkosigan Saga is about overcoming obstacles through perseverance, love, and just plain good parenting. I don't understand @8 and @5 at all.

Very rarely is SF actually ABOUT the SF elements. The Time Machine was about letting go and moving on, not about traveling through time. Star Trek was about a lot of things when viewed broadly, but almost every single episode was "about" something that had nothing to do with futuristic tech. So to say a show isn't SciFi because it just uses "SciFi" trappings to tell a story thats REALLY about something else... kind of misses the point of science fiction.
Anthony Pero
11. anthonypero
Also, when we say "networks" I'm assuming we are only talking about broadcast networks, then, not TNT, etc... because otherwise, Falling Skies is pretty darn Sci Fi.
Alex Brown
12. AlexBrown
@anthony: Yes, only networks. Not cable, basic or otherwise. Hence not bringing Orphan Black into the discussion.
Anthony Pero
13. anthonypero
Which is awesome. Just watched S1 last week. That actress is amazing. I completely buy all the different clones as individuals.
Steven Lyle Jordan
14. Steven_Lyle_Jordan
I'd call all of CW's shows C-minuses, myself... pretty sorry examples of SFF, unless all you want out of SFF is angsty mannequins.
Alex Brown
15. AlexBrown
@Futurisk: I politely disagree. The concept of angsty mannequins on The CW is a rather antiquated view of the channel. Yes, most of the characters are young, but they vary between their teens to 30s in appearance and intentional age range. Which is because their target demo is 18-49. In Tomorrow, for example, the angsty teenager rarely has time to angst, and he splits his screentime with the relatively stable couple in their mid-twenties who also don't have time for angst. The Gossip Girl mentality is a thing of the past.
Jeff R.
16. big_red01027
I'm a fan of Person of Interest. It's one of the best shows on network TV (if not TV as a whole).

Any thoughts on Intelligence? Based on what I've read (not much, I admit), it seems like it'll be in the same vein as Person of Interest.
J Bizzle
17. wolfkin
Other shows back away from absurdity for fear of alienating their older viewers (looking at you, Once Upon a Time)
tha's actually a good point.

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